The United States is the world’s largest nuclear power producer, and more than a quarter of New York’s electricity is supplied by atomic energy. As older nuclear plants in the state, and across the U.S., reach the end of their operational life, managing the nuclear waste left behind has become an ongoing national issue.
For nearly half a century, western New York has been home to one of the nation’s most unique nuclear facilities. The West Valley nuclear site, 30 miles south of Buffalo, is the only commercial nuclear reprocessing plant to have operated in the United States.
In just six years, beginning in 1966, the plant processed more than 700 tons of spent nuclear fuel, generating 660,000 gallons of high level radioactive liquid.
Reprocessing spent fuel
Spent fuel cells from nuclear reactors and weapons testing sites around the country were broken down at the plant in a process which extracted useful uranium and plutonium for re-use.
While the site recycled nuclear waste from other reactors, the radioactive cocktail left behind was still highly hazardous.
And, it would go on to cause a host of issues.
“This is actually the worst thing you can do for nuclear waste as I think anyone who has experience with West Valley cleanup should know,” says Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“When you process spent fuel you increase the likelihood that you can have accidents or releases into the air or water and you generate various types of waste, each of which is very difficult to deal with. So reprocessing is actually the worst thing you could do, however some countries continue to do that based on the misguided belief that reusing the plutonium in spent fuel is beneficial.”
Along with reprocessing, the West Valley facility also served as one of six commercial low-level waste disposal sites designated in the U.S.
The legacy of both operations has resulted in contamination of the soil, air, and water at the site.
But, more than four decades after the plant closed its doors, what to do with the waste at West Valley remains an open question.
Cleanup of the site has been underway since 1980, and to date it’s cost the state and federal governments more than $2.9 billion.
“There are clearly legacy issues from those early generations of nuclear facilities and in fact, we learned from that legacy and put in place regulations that are much more stringent and well informed for the current generation of facilities,” says Mike Webber of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
By 1972, it was clear that profit margins for the facility were lower than projected. West Valley’s commercial operator, Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS), closed the plant for modifications to improve efficiency. But, when evolving regulatory requirements saw the site quickly fall below code, the cost of reopening became prohibitive and NSF bowed out, leaving responsibility for the site with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).
The majority of waste reprocessed at West Valley came from federal facilities, and in 1980 the US Department of Energy (DOE) became responsible for solidifying the liquid byproduct.
They utilized a process called vitrification, which resulted in 275 barrels of highly radioactive glass.
But, some contaminated sludge remains and, along with the buried waste at the site, it’s seen as a risk for the surrounding environment.
“It needs to be removed and, unfortunately, wherever it goes is going to be a sacrifice area because there’s no way to contain nuclear waste that lasts hundreds of thousands and millions of years,” says Diane D’Arrigo, member of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
D’Arrigo says potential contamination of the local water table is now the biggest concern.
“Nuclear waste was brought here and buried in unlined soil trenches… surrounded by streams that cut and drain into Cattaraugus Creek, which gushes into Lake Erie right below where western New York, Erie and Buffalo get their drinking water supply.”
NYSERDA and DOE officials say the natural presence of thick clay at the waste site prevents harmful radioactive isotopes from leaching into the environment.
They test soil, milk, vegetables, and even the meat from road kill in the surrounding area on a regular basis to make sure contamination isn’t leaching off-site.
However, according to D’Arrigo, it’s estimated that the site will erode into the Great Lakes in the next 150 to 1,500 years.
And, she says, increasingly severe weather events mean the waste could be exposed sooner than predicted.
“It’s eroding slowly, but we could have big incidences where more could come… we cannot wait for this stuff to leak out, it has to be dug up and stored retrievably, monitored and maintained.”
The 2011 disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan drew attention to the impact of severe weather events on nuclear facilities. The earthquake and tsunami caused a partial meltdown at Fukushima and prompted a full review of safety in U.S. nuclear facilities.
While some changes were required, the NRC deemed that the current arrangement for fuel storage at most commercial plants was safe.
But, Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists says that conclusion is symptomatic of the gaps in nuclear regulation worldwide.
“Part of the systemic problem that made Fukushima possible was the fact that regulators in the nuclear industry simply believed that something like that could not happen.”
And Lyman agrees that increasingly severe weather events could pose future threats to US facilities too.
“The problem, as always, is how safe is safe enough? And we have concerns that the measures that the NRC is requiring don’t go far enough to really protect US power plants against the whole range of disasters that they might face,” said Lyman.
Nuclear fuel can remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, and that’s how long it needs to be safely stored, according to Lyman.
The NRC’s Mike Weber says the legacy of nuclear waste, which remains long after many plants have closed, is an issue the NRC is actively considering.
“If we license a nuclear power plant we consider the environmental impacts associated with that decision in an environmental impact statement that’s specific for that nuclear power plant. And, if we were to license a high level waste repository, we would consider the environmental impacts associated with the disposal and the transportation and the use of that repository for the spent fuel and the high level radioactive waste.”
“The question arises, well gee, what if you had to store the fuel beyond the licensed lifetime of the nuclear power plant because there would perhaps be a delay in the availability of the repository? What then? What are the environmental impacts associated with that?”
NYSERDA and the DOE are facing that very issue at West Valley. They’re currently working to decontaminate and decommission the site in two phases.
Phase one is already underway, and includes multiple studies intended to inform final phase two decisions, scheduled for 2020.
But for Joanne Hameister, a member of the Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes, after being involved in the issue for nearly four decades, the endless parade of studies is getting tiresome.
“There have been far too many studies,” says Hameister, "and they do cost money and I feel that the money they’re spending for additional studies could be used to do waste remediation at some level. It’s just my view, I’m impatient about getting things done. I’m not going to see this place cleaned up, I can’t live to be 150, I just can’t.”
NYSERDA director for the West Valley site, Paul Bembia, says the studies are necessary to make sound decisions for the site. And, the 2020 timeframe is, in his view, an aggressive one.
“Some of the issues that we’re addressing right now through the phase one studies are some difficult scientific and technical issues. NYSERDA and the DOE have brought in some of the top experts in the country to help us with those, and that scientific process is just going to take a little bit of time.”
And, Bembia says, decommissioning activities are already taking place.
“We are working on very significant decommissioning activities right now while we’re doing the phase one studies, so the phase one studies are not holding up the decommissioning activities.”
Bembia says studies will continue to be done over the next few years. After that, another environmental impact statement will be prepared for the site, public comment will be elicited, and decisions will be made.
But, even if phase two decisions support the removal of all waste from the West Valley site, there’s nowhere for it to go.
And Ed Lyman of Concerned Scientists says there’ll be no solution at the national level for several decades.
“The current law says spent fuel will be buried in Yucca Mountain, and so until that law is changed nothing can really happen. And in Congress there’s very little action or appetite for dealing with nuclear waste legislation.”
Mike Weber at the NRC says the issue is no longer a scientific one.
“The staff did not identify any technical or scientific reason that would lead us to conclude that you could not license the Yucca Mountain repository.”
But, the issue has become highly politicized.
“It’s really now in the hands of the policy makers here in Washington, between the Congress and the President to decide which course would be best to pursue,” says Weber.
“Based on the estimates I’ve seen from the Department of Energy, regardless of which path is taken, we’re probably looking at decades before there would be an operating national geologic repository for high level waste or spent nuclear fuel.”
In the absence of that national solution, local resident Joanne Hameister says West Valley could still be a valuable case study.
“It is so complex, so it’s the worst case scenario. They could make some inroads into treating waste using West Valley like a pilot plant, I think they’ve missed the boat on that.”